On the morning of Saturday, June 24, Laredo cyclists woke up to newly added bike lanes on San Bernardo Avenue, one of the streets most utilized by cyclists.
Formerly known as the Pan American or Meridian Highway, San Bernardo Avenue has been under the jurisdiction of the Texas Department of Transportation (TX DOT) for over a century, dating back to the 1910s and the dawn of the automobile era.
Though some believe the planning of the newly added bike lanes was sporadic and arbitrary, cycling advocates — who wanted to ensure that the safety of cycling commuters was considered — worked with the City of Laredo and TX DOT as it planned to resurface and re-stripe the urbanized principal arterial. Weeks later, the bike lanes, which followed Federal Highway Administration standards, became a part of the avenue.
“The striping of San Bernardo was a group effort,” said Frank Rotnofsky, an avid cyclist and one of the founding members of BIKE Laredo. “When we realized the street was going to be restriped, we asked TX DOT and the City of Laredo to consider including bike lanes. After a series of meetings, and with the help of City staff and City Council members George Altgelt and Roberto Balli, the San Bernardo bike lane striping project started coming together.”
A road diet, also known as a lane and/or width reduction, is a transportation technique in which the number of travel lanes and their width is reduced to improve traffic flow to accommodate different types of commutes.
BIKE Laredo, an arm of the Laredo Active Living: Mayor’s Wellness Council, is the advocacy group that works closely with the City of Laredo and TX DOT to provide safe routes for cyclists, and also works to educate both cyclists and motorists to share the road. Together with the City of Laredo Health Department, BIKE Laredo works with City staff and the cycling community to address some of the most pressing challenges bicyclists face.
In October of 2016, Laredo residents expressed significant interest in diversifying mobility options and aggressively investing in the public transportation system to guarantee safety and efficiency for all types of commuters as expressed by the Viva Laredo Comprehensive Plan. It was fitting that the first major transportation improvements were made to a street of such rich historic significance. The new lanes on San Bernardo Avenue are already providing cycling safety measures to commuters who have no other means of transportation.
Making streets more apt for cyclists not only guarantees safety for populations who may not have access to motor vehicles, but has also shown to have a tremendous economic impact in other communities. Before Magnolia Street in Fort Worth, underwent a road diet in 2008, the street was mainly used by motor traffic and “the strong and fearless” cyclists – those considered to get on their bikes regardless of the safety conditions. After the lane reduction was implemented, “restaurant revenues along the street went up a combined total of 179%” according to Elly Blue, author of Bikenomics.
Laredo businesses can likewise experience economic growth. “San Bernardo Ave. is a street with high cyclist traffic,” said Sandra Rocha-Taylor of Avenida San Bernardo. Rocha-Taylor is an advocate for inner-city revitalization. She helps organize community events including the Midtown Block Party, Paseo en la Avenida, and the Artisan Bazaar at the Pan American Courts Food Truck Park. “We have always had bikes on both San Bernardo and Santa Ursula; they have just been using the sidewalks, or the [unprotected] streets. Anytime you have more access to an area, it will certainly increase business,” she continued. Rocha-Taylor believes the new bike lanes will encourage bike commuters to venture down San Bernardo Ave.
Many cities across Texas and the United States are making aggressive efforts to condense traffic congestion. With the newly added bike lanes, Laredo is attempting to do the same.